A story from the desert fathers tells us about one monk who heard about persecution happening in a village nearby the Monastery. Thrilled by the news, he ran to ask the Abbot of the monastery if he could join those who confessed their faith in front of the officials and ultimately die for Christ.
In those days, to die as a Martyr, was the ultimate display of faith as a Christian. To die for Christ was viewed as a noble and heroic cause above all else. It was common to hear of people wishing to grow up and become Martyrs in the same way some of us wish to grow up and go into a particular profession.
This monk had the same desire. When he eventually reached the Abbot of the monastery to ask him for his blessings to become a martyr, the abbot refused. The monk was confused and asked for an explanation from the Abbot.
“How can you become a Martyr when I saw you yesterday rebuke a brother for a mistake he committed against you? Did you forgive him? Before you long to become a Martyr for Christ, practice becoming a ‘living’ Martyr for Christ. Die to yourself first or else you will deny Him.”
This was not the response he was hoping to get from the Abbot. What he imagined was a valiant heroic send of. The younger monk ignored the Abbots instructions and travelled to the next village to confess his faith.
The next day, the young monk ran back crying to the Abbot asking for forgiveness because he had denied Christ.
So, what does this story have to do with honouring the Martyrs?
St. Paul tells us in Romans 12:1 ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.’
The best way to honour the martyrs is to learn from them. Their heroism began long before their death as martyrs. It began when they became living sacrifices for God. They lived virtuous, holy, Christ-centred lives before all the tortures and ultimately their death.
When we venerate the martyrs, we venerate their lives entirely which includes what they did and who they were before their death.
Often, the martyrs demonstrated great generosity and selflessness by giving all that they had to the poor and devoting their lives to Christ. For example, before St. Mena confessed his faith to the governor, he demonstrated great generosity and asceticism. He sold all he had, gave it to the poor and lived as a monk for a few years before his death. Another example of a little-known martyr was St. Pantaleon. He was a young man who grew up as a Christian but fell away from the faith as a youth. He studied to be a physician, and during his studies he began to reconnect with his faith. As a doctor, he not only tended to the ill and needy, but also performed miracles. Here is a martyr that demonstrated an example for selfless service and repentance before publicly confessing his faith.
We live in time where the chances of becoming a martyr are small. However, we can strive to be living martyrs everyday just as these saints. We honour them by reading about their lives and learning to be holy like them as living martyrs.